Photo by Taylor Humby
Written by Taylor Humby. Originally posted October 24th, 2018. 
Instead of lecturing to a theater hall full of students for 75 minutes, professors are now letting the students do the talking. With the help from the National Science Foundation, Boise State’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) made use of the awarded WIDER-PERSIST grant to try to increase faculty’s usage of evidence-based instructional practices.
These interactive teaching techniques aim to get students to work together through applying knowledge to problems, rather than spending an entire class listening to a professor’s lecture.
According to Brittnee Earl, instructional transformation project manager at the CTL, evidence has shown that active learning environments help students succeed and foster a deeper level of learning. With this evidence, the CTL worked closely with professors to help adjust their curriculums to include more group work between students in the classroom.
“Basically through WIDER-PERSIST, we worked with several faculty to help provide development and collaboration opportunities, to allow them the time and space to revamp their courses in their curriculum and incorporate active learning,” Earl said. “Listening to faculty’s concerns, we aimed to remove barriers so we could enhance and support the things that they said would motivate them, so they had a little room in their department to explore and use those active-learning practices.”
Once professors began adopting these active learning techniques, issues surrounding the teaching environments themselves began to arise. Barriers shifted from instructors trying to foster active learning, to struggles with classroom spaces not supporting this new style.
“Instructors are in these large rooms, and they essentially can’t get to the middle students, they can only get to their students in the perimeter in big lectures halls,” Earl said. “It’s uncomfortable for students just to sit there and look forward, let alone trying to collaborate with somebody in their class.”
This prompted a re-design in a Multipurpose Building lecture hall, one of the first of its kind on campus. The new classroom offers multiple group tables spread out around the room, where students can interact and start applying active-learning techniques taught by professors.
“There weren’t any spaces on campus for large enrollment classes where teachers want to incorporate these activities. The lecture halls just don’t facilitate that,” Earl said. “Because of all the work we did to get faculty to use these active-learning techniques, we had to start looking at how to redesign classrooms that currently exist or look at creating active-learning environments in new buildings going up around campus.”
Tiffany Watkins, a physics professor, uses the new repurposed classroom for all of her classes.
According to Watkins, the new layout in her classroom has created partnerships between students and encourages additional study groups outside of class.
“It’s been amazing for one of my classes; they won’t shut up. They sit and talk to each other and for a long time,” Watkins said. “It really has sort of forced students to interact, as they are sitting there face to face. You can’t just hide; students have to talk about the topic at hand and what they think.”
According to Watkins, there are disadvantages to the new layouts. Watkins said for her smaller classes it provides challenges when attempting to get students to actively participate.  However, this issue doesn’t detract from the benefits provided by the new layout.
“The new layout has sort of changed how you walk around the room and try to get people engaged, but I wouldn’t personally go back,” Watkins said. “They tried to get me to switch rooms for my lower enrollment class, and I was like ‘no, I have waited for this room forever.’”
According to Watkins, there are some professors who aren’t as pleased with the adoption of active learning in classroom designs.
“I know that the teacher after me mentioned they kind of liked the old seating, as the new layout doesn’t work for the way they teach,” Watkins said. “So it is just a matter of getting professors like them on board and saying, ‘well how can you change the way you teach, to make it more beneficial for the students?’”
Megan Frary, a professor in material science and engineering, has been implementing a flipped class model for more than five years now, due to students sharing with her how they felt like they benefited the most from class activities.
Frary creates YouTube videos where she delivers material normally conveyed during a lecture, that students are required to watch as homework before class. Students are then able to spend the vast majority of their time working over information covered and begin applying knowledge rather than reciting it.
“It allows the students to be confused about the content while I’m there to answer the questions,” Frary said. “If I spend the 75 minutes I have lecturing to them, and then they go home and try to do their homework, I’m not there to answer the question that comes up.”
Frary said the point of active learning wasn’t so lecture could be done away with completely. In fact, some lectures can be extremely effective in conveying certain information.
“I think the point is active learning supports students in being engaged in class and learning more. But that does not mean that we should be avoiding lecture all together,” Frary said.
Jiheon Kwon, a student in Frary’s class, echoed this sentiment surrounding active-learning environments. According to Kwon, he benefited from the interactive learning environment. Also, being able to interact with the other students during class helps his understanding of the topic.
“Frary’s class is the class that takes up the most of my time, but I really like how she implements the video lectures into her teaching,” Kwon said. “It is not just a one-time event where I have to absorb all the information in a lecture. I can view the YouTube videos as often as I want, then work and ask questions during class.”
Cynthia Campbell, an assistant professor in the psychology department, explained the importance of teaching, and why there is such a big push for active learning across campus.
Campbell said professors need to adjust teaching to accomodate the ubiquitous nature of information in today’s society.
“Changes in the ability to pick up a smartphone and learn whatever a student wants is driving the need to do education differently,” Campbell said. “One of the ways I think instructors have responded to this, is the recognition that more important than the content we deliver, is how we design the learning experiences.”
View the article on Arbiter Online.
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